A Pennsylvania school board’s use of comments received over the internet has set off a controversy involving the state’s sunshine laws, which require open access to public meetings.
When Central Bucks School District officials were faced with tough decisions that would uproot and place some 2,800 students in new schools, they solicited feedback from parents over the internet instead of using the traditional, face-to-face format of a school board meeting.
Administrators at the Doylestown, Pa.-based districtthe third largest in the statesay the process made it easy for them to see where the greatest need for change was. But some parents who were unhappy with the proposed changes have questioned the validity of transferring the democratic process online.
For one thing, the hundreds of electronic comments that were posted to the district’s web site were not made public. Barry Kaufmann, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a state public interest lobby, said parents should be concerned that comments made online were not shared with others in the community.
“Any part of the online discourse which otherwise would have been part of an open meeting should [have been] made available to the public,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The district’s experiment in the newly evolving realm of eDemocracy shows the challenges that schools face in creating a viable, open forum for discussion if they opt to use the internet in the decision-making process.
Barbara Schumann, administrative assistant for community relations at Central Bucks, told eSchool News the district placed a PowerPoint presentation of its original rezoning planwhich was unveiled at a December board meetingas well as maps supporting the plan on its web site for public perusal.
“Plus, we added a link where parents could give their comments on the rezoning. All their responses were given to the board,” she said.
Over a two-week period, more than 500 responses to the new zoning proposal were posted to the district online.
Parents and community members were encouraged to attend a Jan. 11 board meeting, during which the final version of the district’s rezoning plan was revealed, and speak for the allotted two minutes each. But board members said they already had made amendments to the plan based on comments from the online forum.
In all, more than 20 parents spoke at the Jan. 11 meeting. But their requests had no effect on board members, who decided to stick with the plan they’d already drafted.
Though it might be more convenient for schools, the shift toward dealing with school policy issues online rather than through conventional methods has some parents and citizens’ rights advocates up in arms.
“We feel like we have not had a chance to get our point across,” parent John Pearson reportedly told the board at its Jan. 11 meeting. “We all wrote into the web site and all, but we don’t know how much of that you read.”
Kaufmann also voiced some concerns. “There is a very different dynamic to a meeting where public officials have to confront the public face to face. There’s a synergy in a public meeting that’s not there [when the internet is used instead],” he told eSchool News.
As one of his main concerns, Kaufmann cited the fact that parents without computer access might be left out of the democratic process.
“We are nowhere near 100 percent computer penetration in households and nowhere even close to that number in internet access,” he said. “This restricts the input of those who don’t have computers… If the online suggestions had been in addition to more traditional ways of communication, I’d commend them.”
But they were, said Schumann. After the December meeting outlining the initial rezoning plan, “there were people who sent in comments, stopped by the district office, called. And board members were certainly free to amend the plan at any time.”
Board members said they carefully considered every comment that was posted online, and apologized for not being able to respond to each one. They pointed to the changes they made as proof they were paying attention.
Schumann suggested that sour grapes could be partly responsible for driving the debate over using online discourse to decide public school policy.
“Parents who are happy with the changes thought the online response form was wonderful, but parents who did not like the changes in the amended plan tend to say, ‘We weren’t listened to,’ and so on. But it’s not that we didn’t hear them, it’s just that we can’t please everyone,” she said.
Policy experts familiar with Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law, passed in the 1970s to ensure open access to public meetings, expressed concern over the fact that the online comments were not made part of the public record, and feedback from citizens was not posted for all to see.
Problems like this may continue to arise, Kaufmann fears, because of the antiquated nature of state laws concerning open records.
According to Common Cause Pennsylvania, the state Open Records Law, enacted in the 1950s, “does not cover a wide range of government documents, and fails to account for contemporary records maintenance practices (e.g. computers and other electronic data systems).”
The organization is trying to change the law to make all government-generated documents a matter of public record, with a small number of tightly drawn exceptions.
Opponents to substituting the internet for public meetings note that convenience is not always paramount to other concerns.
“Sometimes democracy [must be] inefficient to be done well,” Kaufmann said.
Central Bucks School District